Evolution Explained

Evolution Explained is a series of fifty or sixty essays that outline the evidence and theory of evolution. I start with the philosophy of science and some definitions and end with ideas still being worked out with research and observation. 

I am mostly retired now, but trained as a molecular biologist and worked as a research scientist and nuclear chemist. Not always in that order and often punctuated with furniture making and writing. 

Feel free to comment on anything, Thanks!


Philosophical toe-dipping

Here’s a caveat before I even start: this philosophical toe-dipping will be simple-minded to some and profound to others. Such is the study of evolution. However, to build a step-wise explanation and argument for evolution, one needs to start somewhere. I side with writer Lewis Carroll, who liked to start at the beginning. Please understand that this is the briefest of outlines. There are lots of good books on the topic written with big words in long paragraphs. For my purpose, though, a short and easily understood outline is enough.

But first, a story 

I went to a restaurant with a friend and his girlfriend once. It was Argentinian and in an upscale part of town. They were reading Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret, and wagged their tails like puppies about the book’s philosophy of creating one’s own reality. At one point, smack in the middle of my biftech au poivre, my friend shouts that the only reason he can’t slide his hand straight through my chest like a salmon swimming upstream is that he lacks belief, poor soul.

I set my fork down, grimaced, and gave a deadpan reply. “No. You can’t stick your hand through my chest because of the repulsive power of electromagnetism.”

I laughed, and he shouted louder. “Ha! This science crap holds you back! You see the world as you want to see it, and this limits you to nothing but dirt and blood! There are greater things!” (Note 1.)

He’s right in a way. Science is about descriptions and repeatable events. If we were to understand all natural facts and their relationships, we would understand the physical workings of everything in our world. However – and it’s disputed – if something is outside of nature, religion, say, or what makes for great literature, we tread on soggy ground when parsing them with the tools of science. In fact, we would have no way of even proving or disproving that such a thing existed.

Two Worldviews

So, here are two world views, loudly laid out for the patrons of a nice restaurant. One – I like his words – is about dirt and blood. Things exist, and we can hold them. Firewood is heavy. If you drop that log on your toe, the pain is real, your foot turns purple, and you apologize to the kids for letting those words slip out of your mouth. Science emphatically requires that the world is a real place with repeatable rules.

Not everyone believes this. My friend doesn’t. Deepak Chopra doesn’t and has made a famous living by doing so. He and my friend argue that there are no real material things. Things that look to be real are inventions of limiting beliefs by shallow humans. Belief enables materials to materially appear. Substance, pain, light, dark; all these are inventions of minds who may or may not understand our true nature.

Between these extremes, Christianity, at least as I understand it, requires material substance, but recognizes a supernatural realm. Did Jesus die? Redemption requires it, but many in the first century argued that the living Jesus was only a shadow of G, a projection shown for hapless humans. If Jesus were G, they said, He could certainly manipulate usu to get you to believe whatever He wanted. 

Along the lines of a semi-real reality, I know a guy who refuses Novocaine when his dentist repairs a cavity. He knows the pain isn’t real. It’s a chemical signal in his nervous system saying that something is amiss with his teeth. This signal is a clear evolutionary adaption. Teeth are essential for reproductive success: we need them for gnawing, and any infection therein can be life-threatening. This guy I know, a hypnotist, has trained himself to ignore these signals, having the work done without numbing. In this case, it’s…kind of true that believing something makes it true. He believes in what we know about nerves and pain and uses that knowledge for his purposes. 

Along this pendulum’s arc, these ideas that nature is real or imagined, are at least two different expressions of dualism. The most common is that some form of ‘spirit’ exists and interjects itself into the real material world. Mind is considered something different from the body, or at least something different from the atoms and molecules and cells that make up the brain. When we die, this non-material part, this spirit, wafts off like smoke from a blown-out candle to a place outside of material things. The Christian bulldog, St. Paul, alludes to this when he says, ‘now we see through a glass darkly, but then [in the spirit world] face to face.’ He acknowledges the reality of the material world but sees it as a transitory springboard to heavenly things. 

A smaller but still large population swings harder toward spirit: that though material things can be real, they exist interchangeably with spirit, and spirit is the ultimate reality. On the other extreme from these folks are those who believe firmly that the mind is the brain is atoms is quark charms. In other words, the mind and thoughts are only atoms coursing through the brain.

In any case, though, if something can’t be sliced, diced, replicated, or reliably explained, then it’s outside the realm of the lab. Science, then, doesn’t necessarily preclude spirit but requires the same evidence that the composition of granite does.

A Uniform Experience

One way a scientific explanation differs from an otherwordly one is in its constancy. Read through the Hebrew book of Judges, and it’s clear that, for these folks, G intervenes at every turn. You really never know how things will turn out. Science can’t work like this. To understand the effect of gravity on a thing, we require that the result is the same everywhere at all times. It does no good for us to say that a Saab falls from the Tower of Pisa at a rate of 9.81 m/ss unless an angel is holding it up. What does it mean that science argues and examines from this view of reality? It means that the laws of nature are universally and always applied, also called uniformitarianism.

It’s experimentally evident that the universe works according to rules or laws that are the same in all places and at all times. We don’t fully understand the rules and laws – their discovery and explanation are at the heart and art of science – but they work whether or not we understand them. Where do the laws of nature come from? From the fabric of our making. From the nature of the materials that created the universe. The world must work the way it does, or it cannot exist. Electrons repel each other. Why? I don’t know. What I know is that the universe would collapse on itself if electrons attracted each other. Could the world be different? I suppose it could be, but it isn’t. Are these rules immutable? At some level, the answer must be yes, or the universe couldn’t exist. How could gravity pull in one place and push in another? That’s not to say that our understanding of the laws is perfect, or sometimes, even accurate. It’s why we test and re-test findings and apply them to new scenarios. 

As scientists watch the world and seek to answer questions, there appears to be scant requirement for something ‘other’ to invade the material world. This is not an argument against its existence, but only against its necessity. Some argue that evolution defies the laws of nature and that DNA mutations alone cannot give rise to the diversity of life we see through history. They argue that something from outside the universe, by necessity, must have nudged the process, set it in motion, that the odds are too great for even the first molecule to form. They might be correct; we simply don’t know enough yet. But this argument has been used for dozens of phenomena that were not understood. It says more, I think, about men than nature. In every case, the necessity for something ‘other’ is eventually ruled out as not required. I see no requirement that anything but the laws of material nature has provided the mindless constraints and energy for the march of life. I could be wrong.

Critics argue that we don’t know enough about the laws to understand their interrelationships, that the world is too complicated. Maybe so. Very likely so. But isn’t this the job of science? To discern what we know, and then, to stretch from there to what we don’t yet know?

Sum It Up

So, to wrap up, here are four assumptions we make with a high level of confidence to do science:

● The material world is real.

● The material world works according to immutable laws.

● The laws of nature are the same at all times and in all places.

● Spirit is not required for nature to function as we see it.

They have served us well as a framework for understanding the universe, the earth, and ourselves. Many don’t believe this to be accurate, but, when push comes to shove, when one stands on top of a building wondering if gravity is real, every single human who has ever lived acts as if it is.

Can science and evolution and religion live in the same boat? It’s a pregnant topic worthy of a full exploration, but, yes, they can live together, and, in fact, for religion to be true, they have to. Augustine, I think, was the first to say it, but the quote has been ascribed to every teacher coming down the pike, “All truth is G’s truth”. From any religious view, this is true by default. If G is the ultimate creator, then everything in that creation can be ascribed to Him or them or it, whether it be algebra, paper making, or evolution.

A question that I ponder sometimes is can one result of that evolution – humankind – give an honest rendering of their creation? And can the putative result of G’s creation – humankind – provide an accurate rendering of the god who made them? Good questions.

Good reads that help with the understanding:

Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit on Brain Pickings. A good read!

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The Canon by Natalie Angier

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking by Daniel Dennett 

Note 1: As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly that G can suspend whatever I call reality at any time and for any purpose. Generally speaking, people can’t stick their hands into another person’s chest. In the normal and repeatable workings of the world, this doesn’t and can’t happen. In fact, when we see these kinds of things, we expect prima facie that we’ve been duped, exactly because they don’t happen.

If you’re wondering, I am decidedly Christian and believe wholly that G could have created the world last Thursday and made all this so-called evidence just for me to think a thing. It confuses some, but I am both a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution appears clear to me based on the evidence. As a Christian, I believe in the creator, though I’m unsure of how to put these two together in a way that makes logical sense. But that’s okay: I parted long ago with the sense that any human can speak logically about the transcendent G of the universe.

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